Like all bodily orifices, the ear is both entrance and exit, ingress and projection, yet of all those orifices the ear in its visible form, the cup anatomical, lacks a dark, seductive power possessed by the others. True, James Joyce in the Sirens section of Ulysses unspooled dizzying associative threads through which heightened hearing is aligned with sensuality, the erotic, primal nature: the ear becoming shell, seahorn, the hair seaweed, pounding ocean of blood resonating within the chambers of shell and shell-like in their mirroring of caves. Within that cave the tympanum, the drum, is rendered sexual through the ribald humour of Joyce's drinkers caught up in the throb and flow of sound.
Inert, conspicuous, out of sight of its twin, the visible ear is provocation, an extraneous fleshy outcrop to be lopped off. Prior to the mutilation of his left ear in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh was said to be obsessed with the Biblical story of Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. After the betrayal by Judas, Peter defends Christ by slicing off the right ear of Malchus, a servant of the high priest. But the ear is also a vessel symbolic of interior voices (even though the production of such voices is independent of external hearing). The question of subjectivity is particularly acute within the domain of listening, since sound is so elusive both in time and space. Aural hallucinations foment within the invisible ear, that inverted saxophone that tunnels by circuitous route to wild imaginings within the secret chambers of the body.
This sense of inversion, by which the mediumistic act of listening with all its symptoms of gathering, sensing, enhancement, calibration and imaginative resonation is turned inside out to be projected outward into the world, seems to be at the heart of John Butcher's more introspective work. He dwells on thresholds, within questionable territories, resting upon actions so small as to tremble on the tense meniscus of control at the edge of being lost. Instabilities necessary to the expressiveness of the saxophone and its activation, particularly the connection between reed and embouchure, are developed into a spare yet eloquent language. Breath within the cavity of the mouth meets the sharp edge of a thin reed. Spittle accumulates within a tube, collecting into a volitional form not unlike aquatic plant life. The extraneous is cultivated, coerced, entrained. Doors open slowly within the tube, a sliding curve, then closed again to ring with the chaotic behaviour of amplified sound as it reflects back on itself.
There is an established tradition of solo improvisation, a kind of public research through which the vulnerability of the instrumentalist is exposed, his or her skill simultaneously undermined by the naked air yet reinforced by being laid bare, as if to say, this is what exists in all its eloquence in isolation. John Butcher is exemplary within this tradition, of course, yet through the nature of his playing, lyrical even in extremis, brings to mind unaccompanied solos by reed players from a very different time: "Picasso", recorded on tenor saxophone by Coleman Hawkins in 1948, then in 1967 Lee Konitz's brief duet with himself on amplified alto saxophone from part 1 of "Variations On Alone Together", and Jimmy Giuffre's freely improvised clarinet solos - "Yggdrasill", "Man Alone" and others - recorded in 1962.
Whereas jazz is a form of dynamic counterpoint, such solos seem closer to torchlit lines extended into darkness. They impose and stretch their own limits, within which the line remains identifiably a line. In John Butcher's case, the line is not so much taken for a walk as fuzzed, scuffed, smudged, multiplied or expanded to probe the space through which it cuts.
Is cutting the appropriate analogy? Flight comes closer, since this is a language reminiscent of birds. "The tawny owl's dark release of song quavered from the pine woods," wrote J.A. Baker in The Hill of Summer. "To him the silence was a flare of sound, a brilliant day of noises dazzling through the veins of dusk." The neck of the saxophone; the neck of a swan through which human nature in its fullness is transformed, disguised, revealed. "Now all speech calls for a response," Jacques Lacan wrote in 1953, ". . . there is no speech without a response, even if speech meets only with silence . . ." There is no solo here. Every sound meets the flaring silence of acoustic space, encounters its own shadow in the higher pitched resonation of electronic feedback, communes with ensembles of the multiple self, doubles back into its own maker even in the moment of its emergence, cries out to the listener who is performer and the hypothetical listener, the invisible ear which will at some point absorb and decipher the mystery, the arresting physicality, of these concise but strange communications.
© David Toop